Japan Recalls Ambassador to China Amid Rising Tensions

Posted on July 15, 2012

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n this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a Chinese patrol ship, right, encounters a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the disputed islands in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, Wednesday, July 11, 2012. Japan’s government is negotiating to buy the disputed islands at the center of a territorial dispute with China from their Japanese owner. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Luo Zhengguang)

A map showing the disputed islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.Japan plans to buy a chain of uninhabited islands at the centre of a fierce territorial dispute with China and Taiwan back from its private owners, a local newspaper reported Saturday. (AFP)

TOKYO — Japan temporarily recalled its ambassador to China on Sunday in response to renewed friction over a disputed island group, at a time when it faces fresh discord with its allies South Korea and the United States over women forced to work in Japanese brothels during World War II.

While minor, the diplomatic flare-ups underscore how disagreements over history and territory continue to isolate Japan from the rest of Asia. They come after several years of relative calm in which Tokyo had seemed to mend fences with neighbors still traumatized by Imperial Japan’s brutal, early 20th-century march across Asia.

The dispute over Asian and Dutch women forced to service Japanese soldiers in wartime brothels has even put Tokyo at odds with its postwar protector, the United States. Unconfirmed reports that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has banned the use of the Japanese euphemism “comfort women” in favor of the more direct “sex slaves” prompted a curt retort last week in the Japanese Parliament by the foreign minister, Koichiro Gemba, who called the latter term “a mistaken expression.”

Under its conservative prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, Japan has recently tried to challenge some of the claims made about the women, whom many historians say were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military but many Japanese say were willfully working as common prostitutes. Those assertions have drawn angry reactions in South Korea, where they are seen as signs that Tokyo remains unrepentant for its harsh colonization of the Korean Peninsula. On July 9, an irate South Korean drove his truck into the front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

Mr. Noda has similarly provoked Beijing, with a move earlier this month to defend Japan’s claims to disputed islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by mainland China, and Taiwan by announcing he wanted to nationalize them. Last week, China apparently responded by sending three fishery patrol ships into waters around the uninhabited islands between Okinawa and Taiwan, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

The incursion prompted Tokyo on Sunday to temporarily summon its ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa. He returned to Tokyo for what Japanese officials said were discussions over how to prevent the island dispute from further escalating and damaging ties between the two Asian powers.

“We’ll send him back to Beijing soon after he finishes” the discussions, the foreign minister, Mr. Gemba, said late Saturday in Hanoi. Mr. Gemba has already lodged a protest with Beijing over the entry by the Chinese ships.

Mr. Noda announced plans to buy three of the uninhabited islands, which are currently owned by a private Japanese citizen, after Tokyo’s rightist governor announced that he wanted to buy the islands. China says Japan seized the islands after winning a late 19th-century war between the two nations. Uninhabited and virtually worthless in their own right, the islands are located near rich fishing grounds and possible undersea oil and natural gas deposits.

Mr. Gemba was in Southeast Asia to attend a regional meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that failed Saturday to find an agreement on how to respond to China’s separate territorial claims to the South China Sea, which are also claimed by several other nations in the region including Vietnam.

On the sidelines of that meeting, Mr. Gemba had been expected to hold a routine meeting with the South Korean foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan. But the meeting never happened because, the two nations remained too far apart on the issue of sex slaves and also a scuttled military pact, the Japanese news media reported.

The pact, which would have allowed the Japanese and South Korean militaries to swap information on North Korea and China, was aborted at the last minute after a sudden eruption of public opposition in South Korea over closer ties with its former colonial master.

After being dormant for years, the sex slaves issue suddenly got renewed attention in May after Japan’s consul general in New York tried to have a monument to the sex slaves removed from a public park in New Jersey. The move drew the ire of Korean-American groups, which rippled back across the Pacific Ocean to South Korea.

Many of the sex slaves were Koreans, some of whom, though now in their 70s and 80s, still hold vigils in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. They are demanding compensation and an apology; Japan says all war-related claims were settled when it established diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1965.

New York Times

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